Thursday, 26 November 2009

The meaning of life

I have spoken about book jackets many times in this blog. Writers underestimate their importance at their peril I think.

A book jacket at its simplest level is just product information. It tells you what the book is and who made it. The blurb is a kind of ingredients list.

All of that is important stuff, and it all needs to be there and readable. But of course a jacket is more than that. The cover can also give a visual impression of the book. It can show one of the characters or a scene from the story. It can give some idea of the setting or the historical period or even the prevailing mood.

But though all those things are important as well in their way, I think the truly vital quality of a book jacket - one that can get lost in all those discussions about typefaces and illustrations - is its ability to make the book a desirable object.

This is clearly a subjective thing: what is desirable to me might not be desirable to a fifteen year-old girl, but that is where clever graphic designers come in. A good book jacket will both confirm tastes we already held, while also intriguing us and showing us something new.

I have bought many books on the strength of their jackets and I find it almost impossible to buy a book - even by an author I like - if it has a bad jacket. And I think I'm far from alone in this. As long as a book does not actually misrepresent a book, I think the main design aim should be to make it as attractive or compelling an object as possible.

Which brings me on to the Oxford University Press A Very Short Introduction series. These books are great. They are perfect for authors in that they give a short grounding in a variety of subjects. They are well-written and thought-provoking.

As well as being short, they are also small - half the size of a normal paperback: perfect for rail journeys as they weigh next to nothing. But they are also beautiful objects. Non-fiction jackets that are a thousand times more desirable than many, or even most, fiction jackets.

I assume the abstract covers (painted by Philip Atkins) were a way of providing a series continuity whilst answering the problem of the diversity in subject matter. But there could have been a crushingly dull solution to that. Go into any bookshop and see.

These jackets are lovely. They bring out the collector in me. They make me want to buy the whole lot.

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